“The Echo of Embarrassment”

Like a stone tossed into water, public humiliation has a ripple effect. We can easily draw up a list of people who have endured public shame in recent times. Maybe we’ve even had a few judgmental thoughts about them. But do we ever think to listen to them?

Thanks to an excellent post by Nicki Chen, “Easter Thoughts on New Life and Monica Lewinsky,” I listened to a recent TED Talk by Monica Lewinsky—a woman publicly vilified in 1998. (Click on Nicki’s post title to head to her blog, Behind the Story.)


Monica Lewinsky

I remember my thoughts back then, when we first learned about her. My sympathies were for a wife humiliated by her husband’s affair. I never gave a thought to how Ms. Lewinsky might have felt. Until now. Until her talk. You might lend her your ear, if you have a spare 22 minutes.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Lewinsky talked about the pain she and others experienced after being bullied online. Some quotes that jumped out at me from her talk:

Online, we’ve got a compassion deficit, an empathy crisis. Researcher Brené Brown said, and I quote, “Shame can’t survive empathy.”. . . Just imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline.


Brené Brown

If you listened to the talk, you’ll recognize that the title of this post comes from it. As Ms. Lewinsky stated

The echo of embarrassment used to extend only as far as your family, village, school or community, but now it’s the online community too.

Isn’t that the truth? It’s sad how lives become fair game for others to rip apart. I cried when I heard the talk, mainly because I realize how judgmental I usually am when I think someone “deserves” to be ridiculed. Those who have experienced it know that online persecution is a descent into hell without a “get out of jail free” card.


I can’t speak for you, but I’ve got a few words for myself, thanks to this talk. It takes only a few seconds to scar someone for life with one’s words. It also takes only a few seconds to sympathize with someone and possibly turn that person’s life around. Instead of joining the crowd throwing rocks, I can do something else: I can consider how I would feel to take such a public blow. I can also find a better use for my words—building someone up with them.

Basalt wall rock

There’s another famous story that mirrors Monica’s. If you’ve got another few moments, you might check out John 8:1-11 in the Bible.


Monica Lewinsky photo from somewhere online. Monopoly “get out of jail free” card from texasxriders.com. Rocks from thedangergarden. Brené Brown from telegraph.co.uk. Public shaming sign from mashable.com.

48 thoughts on ““The Echo of Embarrassment”

  1. Definitely see the echo effect and it’s one that stays forever thanks to the Internet. How many people have been accused of a crime, tried in the public eye, found innocent in the court, and still have their lives destroyed because of how the Internet works? I’ve been noticing it for a long time that there’s a lack of empathy on here. Maybe it’s because we don’t really see those that our words affect or think our actions will go further than our circle. We’re still so used to keeping gossip between our friends that posting it on Facebook without an audience filter never seems like a ‘bad idea’. Then again, I know people who love getting attention from jumping into a fray and attacking a stranger that they don’t know. Online mob mentality maybe?

    • Sad but true, Charles. Definitely mob mentality. It’s safer hiding out in the dark, using an anonymous face to call out judgment. Yes, people do wrong things. And thanks to the Internet, news stories travel farther quickly. But sometimes people willfully misconstrue remarks made and start their own witch hunts. As you said, some do it to get attention.

      I’m embarrassed at how many times I’ve passed on gossip just to have something to say to someone. But that’s a reflection on my life and how I need to be more active.

      • The on-line witch hunts get pretty scary. It’s amazing to see how easily a phrase can be taken in several different ways. Context is thrown out and any new information that goes against the original belief gets ignored or rationalized away. Makes me think the truth is really somewhere in the middle.

        I’ve done the gossip thing too. I’m trying to avoid it these days. Then again, I haven’t been very social lately. So it’s easier to do. 🙂

      • I’ve seen the witch hunts, particularly those where someone seems content to be angry even after totally misunderstanding someone else’s intent. I guess there are a lot of unhappy people out there.

        Good for you! You have a lot going on. Maybe that’s the solution. We need to shape our own lives, rather than tear down the lives of others.

      • I think the nature of the Internet makes it more difficult to calm down or come to an understanding. It isn’t as quick a back and forth as it would be in person. Misunderstandings are easy and you don’t get the facial expression/body language side of communication. So many could probably be avoided if they weren’t on-line.

      • Very true, which is why we really need to be more cautious, since we seldom get to take back our words. Now I can see why some people refuse to use social media.

      • It gets harder and harder to hear about life events without it though. Several friends of mine only mention things through the Internet, which I’d miss if I wasn’t on FB.

      • And I also have friends who announce through Facebook or Evites. Countless times, I hear, “Did you see the baby pictures on Facebook?” And I have to say, “Um, I didn’t get around to it. I don’t automatically check the timelines of everyone I know on Facebook. That would take days!”

      • I’ve had the ‘you heard about this, right?’ conversation and I have to admit that it never showed up in my feed. Facebook is terrible now that it’s such a random drawing of things.

      • That happens to me a lot. Very frustrating. Half the time, I can’t find the announcement, because it’s buried under twenty others.

      • Cats eating bacon or cats hanging out with bacon? I missed those memes. Now I want to see one. 🙂
        Seriously, you never see dogs with bacon.

    • Thank you, Nancy! I read that blog post at your suggestion. Loved it! And I loved your post with quotes and The Piano Guys video. Now, that’s a good use of words and music. 🙂

  2. When I first heard about this talk, I really had no interest in listening. About a week later, I ran across it again and listened. I’m glad that I did. I felt compassion toward her, which I never did during the scandal. I hope she continues to speak on the power of words, and how they can destroy a person’s life.

    • I know what you mean, Jill. I never would have listened to this talk if Nicki hadn’t posted it. But what a talk! Glad she had the courage to deliver it. I’ve been seeing a number of messages like this about the crisis of empathy and the need to be kinder with words.

  3. The echo of embarrassment has trailed her for far too long. I’m glad she’s taking her voice back. I agree, your sympathies weren’t misplaced- if you were married, it was easier to walk in Mrs Clinton’s shoes. I guess some didn’t realize they could sympathize with one without excessively shaming the other. Some of the media that once shamed her are helping her find her voice. And those of us on the bleachers are learning what it means to open our hearts, because as you eloquently point out, public humiliation has a ripple effect.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Timi. I enjoyed your post. And isn’t it interesting that we usually think we have to choose between one or the other. We could have sympathized without shaming. I never thought about it at the time. This talk has caused me to think about my responses.

  4. We all have that natural inclination to go with the flow and not be singled out, so it’s always a good exercise to try and empathize with the persecuted. Things aren’t always cut and dry, no matter which side we take!

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Linda. Monica Lewinsky was only 24, and a lot of people (including me) did things at that age or even a bit older for which we may still be paying the price. I’m glad she’s being given the opportunity to speak for herself, and I will definitely listen.

  6. I liked your use of the “stones” image: throwing stones, building walls, and also the link to the challenge by Jesus for the person who is without sin to throw the first stone at the adulteress.

    When I was growing up in the fifties, the big shame was getting pregnant out of wedlock. High school girls disappeared and were gossiped about. Since none of them were my close friends–(It was actually pretty uncommon in those days.)–I didn’t hear much about their stories. I wonder if the quiet, whispered gossip made the shaming less powerful. At least there was no way to hit “share” to your 300 best friends.

    Fast forward to 2015, and the family of an acquaintance (a friend of a friend) is in turmoil because their young daughter has been cyber-bullied for the past year or two, and the poor girl is having a terrible time coping with it. I barely know the family, but I often think about the girl and worry about her.

    Thank you for linking to my blog.

    • Thank you, Nicki. It’s sad how times have changed, but not necessarily for the better. So many teens are being cyberbullied–a shockingly high percentage of them. I’m sorry about your friend’s daughter. I hope she can get some relief from that.

  7. I’ve followed Ms. Lewinsky’s attempt to establish herself with interest. I wish I had her access to PR. Of course, I remember this incident. She wasn’t much older than I was. I distinctly remember wondering how I’d feel if I were her and the Clinton/Political PR machine turned on me. It’s different today, I think, because anyone can become a target. I’ve been bullied for writing specific blog posts. I’ve had my work skewered in public. I’ve been personally attacked online. I’m nobody, and it’s happened to me. I know I’ve made mistakes in my own dealings, but my words live online forever. They deserve measured, balanced, thoughtful placement, because there’s a person at the other end.

    • Oh Andra. I’m sorry you’ve endured that kind of thing. It’s sad that people so freely offer their hateful opinions. They don’t realize that what goes around comes around. I remember making a blistering accusation about a friend. Ten years later, someone accused me of the same thing.

      It’s sad that people don’t realize they’re bullying others. (Perhaps they do and don’t care.) I wish there were better laws about that.

  8. A very provocative post and stream of comments. We are so quick to judge, aren’t we, without any concern of what a person may be going through or how or words may hurt? In fact, we forget that he or she is a person. Well, others have said it better than I can here, especially you. Thanks for this post.

      • That’s it exactly, L. Marie; your likening the internet arena to the lions’ den is spot on. It was good to read this and see the visuals as a reminder that there are real people on the other end of the internet “line”.

      • So true, Penny. And sadly, we’re getting do desensitized that we fail to see people as “real.” We have so many “friends” on Facebook and other social media. While it’s nice to connect with people, we aren’t really connecting with them face to face and living life with them.

  9. Two super thought-provoking posts in a row. 🙂 For myself, I prefer not to be in on the gossip in the first place. I don’t think that just because someone is famous, it means the rest of us aren’t gossiping when we talk negatively about them.

    • It’s so easy to do. A celebrity’s life seems so accessible. What’s sad is when others destroy their privacy by hacking into their accounts and taking their private photos. 😦

      I guess the best antidote for that is to make our own lives count! That way, we won’t always turn to someone else’s life like a kid with his or her face plastered to a candy shop window.

  10. I read this on Nicki’s blog, Linda, and I also thought how easy it is to ‘cast the first stone’ without trying to see the other side. The lady is a survivor but what a hell she’s been put through.

  11. To take a different tack from most of your commentators, a person’s life is not synonymous with their online reputation. “Life was almost unbearable” said Ms. Lewinksy. Not so, life was as bearable or unbearable as she wanted it to be. As my mother used to say, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me.”

    • As kids we used to say that quite often. 🙂 But we know for a fact that names can be damaging sometimes. Some are more successful at riding out the storm. I’m thinking of Vanessa Williams, for example.

  12. Names can be damaging if we tie our happiness to what we are called. However, the fact is that we cannot control what other people say or think of us, so it’s best to tie our happiness to things we have more control over.

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